All this week and over the coming weekend visitors to Disneyland Paris will have been treated to an unusual but compelling attraction – the 2011 World Weightlifting Championships.
In the tented village at the heart of the theme park, world records have tumbled and athletes compete to qualify for the London 2012 Olympics.
Disney and the “clean-and–jerk.” Not an obvious pairing. But then the International Weightlifting Federation (IWF)) is on a mission to change how we think about the sport.
First stop Disneyland. Next stop Houston. “Space City” will be hosting the championships in 2015, the first in the U.S. since the inaugural women’s world championship at Daytona Beach in 1987.
Weightlifting has two image problems. One, its public profile has been dogged by problems of drug abuse. Two, beyond a tiny circle of devotees, weightlifting means furious men in one piece romper suits getting angry with a bar. Neither is helping to sell the sport to new participants, sponsors or mainstream audiences.
The drugs use goes back to the 1950s when medic Dr John Ziegler traveled with the U.S. weightlifting squad to a tournament in Vienna. Falling into conversation with a Soviet trainer, he was told that the Russian “boys” were regularly dosed with testosterone. Back in the States, Ziegler tried it out on himself and a few weightlifters.
Dissatisfied with testosterone’s crudity, Ziegler was instrumental in promoting the first anabolic steroids which, entirely legally, he administered to the U.S. 1960 Olympic weightlifting squad They still lost out to the Soviets (1 gold medal to 5), but the use of steroids (to the later dismay of Ziegler) became endemic.
Of the 99 human beings busted for Olympic doping offenses (there have been some horses) 38 have been weightlifters.
Entire teams have been excluded from the Olympic competition for failing to follow World Doping Agency regulations – most recently the great Bulgarians and the Greeks were banned from the Beijing games. Sadly, this time around in Paris, the problem has not been resolved. Seven national teams including, again, the Bulgarians as well as the Qataris and the Sri Lankans have been banned from competing.
An American golden age
American weightlifting today is not what it was. At the turn of the century weightlifting impresario Louis Attila ran a wildly fashionable and successful weights room in New York which made the sport popular in gyms all over the country.
In the late 1940s and 1950s, Bob Hoffman, a businessman in oil burners from Georgia, nurtured a generation of lifters who won a host of Olympic and World titles.
Tara Knott’s Olympic gold at Sydney 2000 is the only American triumph in over half a century since.
However, there are hints of a new kind of weightlifting culture emerging at the world championships that might appeal to a new American audience.
The choice of venue is certainly sending out a message. As the organizers spell out on the World Weightlifting Championship website “this will be the occasion to show that weightlifting can be an attractive discipline.” What’s more, they point out, weightlifting can also help with osteoporosis and back problems.
Truth in hip hop
Most significant is the organizers’ release of an official tournament song – Mentale Theorie – performed by one of France’s leading hip-hop artists Claude Fhemann.
While Fhemann does his stuff around the gym, extolling the seriousness of the sport’s challenge, a multi-ethnic cross-section of young French men and women, in pristine contemporary sports kits, calmly but intensely go about their business.
Fehmann’s account of the sport is spot on. For all its dependence on sheer strength, weightlifting has a complex psychological component. In a competition, lifters get to attempt only three lifts. Deciding whether to start low or high, whether to match or exceed your competitors presents intriguing tactical dilemmas.
Even more important, a lifter who doesn’t really think they can manage the weight is lost. The bravado and confidence required at this level, where some athletes are lifting triple their bodyweight, produces some extraordinary methods. The Japanese bantamweight Takashi Ichiba performed a double flip before each lift, some pray, others beat themselves up.
Iran and Russia dominate in Paris
The tournament concludes this weekend with the competitions for the super-heavyweights –the heaviest weight categories for both men and women. All eyes will be on Iranian Behdad Salimi, a national hero and the reigning world champion who set a new world record earlier this year.
But so far this year the women’s competitions have provided the best sporting action, with two Russian lifters Svetlana Tsarukaeva and Nadeza Evstyukhina breaking world records in their weight categories.
British athlete Zoë Smith, just 17 years old is attracting lots of attention. She achieved a new personal best and stands on the verge of Olympic qualification at her first attempt. It’s the kind of story and the kind of performance that has put weightlifting back on the map in the U.K.
Come Houston 2015 it could be back on America’s map too.